The Georgetown Boys is a book that tells a remarkable story of survival and cultural preservation, one that is often regarded as Canada’s first humanitarian act on an international scale. In the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, thousands of children were orphaned, having lost their parents in the devastation that continued from April 1915 until the end of WWI in 1918. At the war’s end, relief agencies gathered many of these young boys and girls and began the arduous process of resettling and resocializing them. However, the Turkish War of Independence put these children at risk once again, forcing them to be moved to the safety of orphanages in Greece and throughout the Middle East.
Canada also stepped up to the challenge when Near East Relief and the Lord Mayor’s Fund of London, England selected 109 Armenian orphan boys and 39 orphan girls from orphanages in Turkey and Greece. While the girls served as domestics in and around Toronto, the boys were settled in a farm home in Georgetown, Ontario beginning in 1923, where they were to be brought up as good Canadian farmers. They became known as “The Georgetown Boys.”
Rescued from the carnage of the 1915 Armenian Genocide committed by Ottoman Turkey, these orphans were given a chance for a new life in Canada. Never before had such a scheme been undertaken. At that time, Canada’s immigration department had strict rules, some of which were based on false racial considerations, and immigrants had a very difficult time entering the country. When Orders-in-Council gave permission for the entry of 100 orphaned Armenian lads “on an experimental basis,” it was an immigration first, and soon became known as “Canada’s noble experiment.”
The ability of these Armenian children to retain their cultural heritage in the face of tremendous pressure to assimilate, both direct and indirect, is especially inspiring. Having lost everything, the most precious thing remaining to them was the memory of their families and their heritage. Theirs is a story of humour, humanity and history. An account of the dark and light moments that made up these rescued boys’ reality and the resilience of children, this story is essential to our understanding of multiculturalism’s best intentions.
One of the most moving sections of The Georgetown Boys, which I edited, involves an episode in which the orphanage administration, under guidelines approved by the Ministry of Immigration, tried to give the boys new Canadian names and identities. On the day they were assigned their new names, the boys greeted this with great delight, parading around, shaking hands with one another and saying things like, “How do you do, Mr. King? My name is Mr. Weaver.” Very quickly, however, they became uneasy at the loss of their Armenian names, which reinforced their feelings of loss of home, family and identity. These youngsters formed a delegation and tearfully asked to be able to keep their original names. After due consideration, both the orphanage administration and the Ministry of Immigration consented. This tolerance helped make for a great success story in Canada’s early immigration. If the officials in charge of Canada’s residential school system had known of this earlier unsuccessful attempt at forced assimilation, the traumatic suffering of countless Aboriginal Peoples might have been avoided.
The story of the Georgetown boys and girls represents one of the earliest examples of Canadian international humanitarian aid as well as Canadian multiculturalism. It is an integral part of our evolution into a country known for its advocacy for the rights of those suffering overseas and the start of Canada’s role as a protector of international human rights and justice.
The original farm is now part of Cedarvale Park in Georgetown and an Ontario Provincial Plaque was erected there on June 26, 2010 designating it a municipal historic site.
Lorne Shirinian is a son of a Georgetown boy and a Georgetown girl.
Watch "Georgetown Boys" written and directed by Dorothy Manoukian
Watch "Lorne Shirinian: the Georgetown Boys and Girls of Canada" by CivilNet TV
The Georgetown Boys (Paperback 2009) by Jack Apramian, Author; Lorne Shirinian, Editor
The Georgetown Boys and Girls, Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Il y a cent ans, le génocide arménien, Radio-Canada, April 2015 (in French)
How Canada recognized the Armenian Genocide, The Toronto Star, April 2015
Thousands attend Toronto rally marking 100 years since Armenian genocide, CTV News, April 19, 2015
Defence Minister Jason Kenney: Canada Believes In Memory, Horizon Weekly, April 21, 2015
Jason Kenney in Armenia, International Informatization Academy